A return to “normality.” A collective sigh of relief. From Washington, D.C. to living rooms across the world, the inauguration of President Joe Biden signalled a return to “normal.” Back to the old ways of doing politics. The slew of executive actions Biden signed on his first day undid (thankfully) many of the draconian dictates of the Trump administration. For many, January 20, 2021, was like waking up after a four-year nightmare. And of course, the damage of those years — whether in packing courts with right-wing judges or emboldening white supremacists — will be felt for generations. The Trump administration, of course, should not be considered as an aberration, except stylistically, to U.S. empire and the smooth functioning of global capitalism. But perhaps the domestic divide-and-conquer tactics of Stephen Bannon and his craven ilk marked an inward racial war that is usually reserved for overseas.
But as the unbearably hollow celebrations of the Biden victory subside, we are left with this return to “normal.” What exactly is normal? And why have so many of us been so desperate to embrace it? The answer, of course, is full of contradiction and paradox. Most obviously, the “normal” that most Americans experienced was itself a stultifying order. Why the hurry to embrace a system as depressing and degrading as capitalism? Whether this system is branded with MAGA baseball caps or “I’m with Joe” t-shirts is largely irrelevant. Not unimportant, of course, but it is vital to peer behind the façade to see capital’s unyielding machinery.
From the moment we are born, this “normality” of capitalism is forced upon us. Everywhere, everything, and everyone is conditioned to swallow “normality.” Low-paid, meaningless jobs, insecurity of livelihood and health care, mountains of debt, and an environment that is pillaged and polluted. All in the name of a normal order. There’s nothing natural about living in such a system of oppression. But nonetheless, this depression and depravity is compensated with a million shiny things and social media “likes.” Consumption temporarily provides the distraction and masks the pain, even as it contributes to the mounting crises tearing through neoliberal societies.
So perhaps we’ve struck a Faustian bargain with capital’s pervasive normal. We will accept the low-paid bullshit jobs; we will accept the lack of security of housing, health and livelihood; and we will accept a planet on fire — so long as we are able to buy “stuff.” But is this really the reason why we accept normal? Or does the constant manufacture and reinforcement of normal also preclude our imagining and desiring more liberatory alternatives?
Normal is ideology. Normal patterns how we think, perceive and act. The term ideology is usually associated with Cold War propaganda posters. But ideology is more than mental propaganda or psychological hypnosis. Ideology is made concrete. It materialises itself in the cities we work in (or don’t), in the houses we buy (or don’t), and in the planet we survive upon (or don’t). It’s little wonder then, that normal is so hard to escape. We eat, sleep and breathe normal. But in so doing, we inhale a system that deadens our imaginations, deadens our senses and deadens the planet.
Without normal, who are we? What should we do for work? This is the most urgent of existential questions: how to go beyond our dystopian normal. Presently, we define ourselves in and through normal: Who we are is our miserable jobs. As Marxist scholar Andy Merrifield writes, “work is revered in our culture, yet at the same time workers are becoming superfluous; you hate your job and your boss, hate the servility of what you do, and how you do it, the pettiness of the tasks involved, yet want to keep your job at all costs. You see no other way of defining yourself other than through work.” And, as the COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted, this truncated measure of self-definition has forced millions to make ghastly life and death choices.
We are therefore led back to the central discontent of normal: the lack of alternatives. How can we possibly desire a different world when we don’t know what it looks like? Our current mainstream society offers absolutely no alternatives to capitalism. It tinkers with the edges, reshuffles identity politics as and when needed, and occasionally cuts a check to “hardworking families.” The lack of alternatives is not an accident. Any threat to capitalism’s order is violently suppressed, both in imagination and on the streets. Our intellectual commons have been violently emptied, and even the mild radicality of academia — which has sometimes nourished our collective unconscious with dreams of difference — has largely fallen in line with the astonishing success of normal.
The masses have not been duped or tricked into desiring their own repression. They are taught to desire their repression from the day they are born. The wonderful world of normal is forced into our minds, our bodies, our jobs, our neighborhoods, our oceans. But its victory is not in any way assured. Normal can be (and routinely is) challenged. Yet we must strike at the heart of normal’s foundations if we want a truly transformative agenda, since these foundations are rarely discussed “in the open” of mainstream politics. We consider land (or, more precisely, the commons), livelihood and liberty as the three central pillars that must be addressed if we are to create a more dignified world.
Presently, all three pillars are dominated by the violent injustices of capitalism. Our land — as part of a wider shared commons — has been constantly enclosed, privatized, chopped up and sold off. This creates a principle — or even primary — disconnect in capitalism, since billions are denied a place of their own. Astronomical rent, unfathomable mortgages, feudal land arrangements, a planet of slums and widespread homelessness, all follow from the strange belief that the land beneath our feet is a commodity.
Second, our livelihoods are similarly privatized, chopped up and sold off. We must sell our labor to survive. And that is only for those “lucky” enough to have a job. What awaits many are underpaid jobs that are all too often supplemented by credit cards to make ends meet. What awaits many more is somehow surviving and making do in the brutal interstices of the global capitalist gulag.
Finally, injustices in land and livelihood create injustices to our liberty. Saddled by debt, working (or not) a 9 to 5 job, barely able to make rent, we are unable to exercise our most basic human freedoms of creativity and spontaneity. In fact, such freedoms are scarcely even considered. Instead, liberty is narrowed, for the relatively privileged among the masses, to choices made almost exclusively in the arena of consumption: what to buy. For those less fortunate billions, there are few choices of any kind.
The “normal” constraints placed upon land, livelihood and liberty must be challenged. First, the many existing starting points should be highlighted and used to light up our dormant imaginations. Second, we must seek a new politics of commoning, cooperatives, and — at the very least — large-scale investments in public housing to lift people out of debt and from the yoke of landlords. In so doing, we wish to forefront environmental justice as central to a new kind of socialist geography. Third, we must challenge the assumption that we must work for somebody else — and that the sole horizon of our work is to obtain a subsistence wage, no matter how soul- or planet-killing that work might be. Redefining work as a form of cooperation and mutual reciprocity within a local community (rather than a global market) is vital. Finally, we must redefine liberty as a power to create, to freely assemble across borders and to change the world with our own hands.
A return to normal is a return to injustice. We must dream differently.